How Individuals’ Narratives Can
Communicate What Legal Theory
and Statistics Can’t
Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises
Jodie Adams Kirshner (St. Martin’s Press 2019), 342 pages
Sharon A. Pocock, rev’r*

In Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises,
author and bankruptcy professor Jodie Adams Kirshner examines the
consequences of the City of Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing on the city
and its residents. Her thesis, based on her study of various municipal
bankruptcies, is that municipal bankruptcies do not produce the same
type or level of positive outcomes as do corporate or individual bankruptcies and, in fact, can have negative consequences on the residents
of those municipalities that have sought bankruptcy relief. As Kirshner
states, “for changing the future of a city, bankruptcy offers a limited
tool. Bankruptcy offers a legal process for restructuring debt. It does not
address the deeply rooted problems that reduce municipal revenues.”2 In
Broke, as she discusses causes and consequences of Detroit’s bankruptcy
case, Kirshner presents in detail the lives of several Detroit residents, her
“protagonists,”3 as a foundation and proof of this thesis.
Broke is a book of interest to anyone involved in bankruptcy work
because it concerns the bankruptcy of a city, a type of bankruptcy case
that has been rare but has become more frequent in the last ten to fifteen
years.4 But more generally, Broke illustrates the power of storytellin

to show the effect of government process and decisionmaking on individuals. Data on the number of individuals affected by a law or by an
economic downturn, the dollar figure of economic losses or penalties, and
the abstract explanation of causes of reversals of fortune can be dry, cold,
and distant. The stories of the seven individuals that Kirshner presents
in her book reveal the full impact of one event or decision on the life of
that individual, with consequences that data alone would not suggest to
a reader’s mind. Through reminiscences about the past as well as details
of their current lives, the individuals’ stories told here give the reader a
glimpse into the past and present of both Detroit and its residents.
In July 2013, the City of Detroit became the largest municipality to
file a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition. It emerged from bankruptcy after
“[s]eventeen months and nearly $180 million in fees and costs.”5 Through
the bankruptcy, the city was able to reduce its obligations by cutting some
city employees’ pensions by 7%, paying financial creditors at the rate of 13
cents on the dollar, and obtaining $325 million in new loans to carry out
future operations and services.6 Yet those financial achievements did not
solve the ongoing problems of a city with an impoverished and declining
population, diminished job opportunities, and a decreased tax base.

Consequently, Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy did little to aid city
residents in their lives but instead, in numerous cases, imposed additional
Kirshner explores the many causes of Detroit’s problems over the past
decades. Automation and reduced transportation and communication
costs allowed employers to cut jobs or move production elsewhere.7
Starting in the 1980s, the federal government reduced federal aid to cities
even though cities are “generally . . . home to the largest numbers of poor
and marginalized individuals most dependent on public services.”8 A
school busing decision in 1974 spurred the move of families from the city
to suburbs, affecting both the city and its school system.9 The subprime
mortgage crisis of 2008 turned many Detroiters from homeowners
into renters, when home ownership is generally an important financial
asset for the average person.10 The fall in both city property and income
tax revenues resulted in fewer resources to provide municipal services,

how individuals’ narratives can communicate what legal theory and stats can’t 3
causing the city, post-bankruptcy, to raise various rates and fees to
generate revenue, while also cutting services to reduce costs. With fewer
jobs and opportunities, a rise in crime occurred, which the reduced level
of police and fire services could not stem. The Detroit school system also
faced problems because of lost tax revenue and a decreasing student
population. Families left Detroit or chose to enroll children in charter
schools in the city, thus draining away from the city’s public school system
both students and the revenue per student devoted to education.11
Interspersed with these facts and analyses of Detroit’s history, its
bankruptcy, and its current condition are the stories of seven current
Detroit residents. Each of these stories shows in concrete detail the impact
of the city’s past decline and current state on the daily lives of Kirshner’s
protagonists. Beginning in 2016, Kirshner began interviewing over 200
individuals in Detroit. Her seven protagonists range in age from mid-20s,
to 40s and early 50s, to early 60s, some African American, some white.
Most were native Detroiters, but a few had recently moved to Detroit.
Most were struggling financially, but some had greater resources they
hoped to use in establishing businesses in Detroit. All have been hindered
in their lives and plans by the situation of Detroit—economic, financial,

and social—during and after its bankruptcy.
The stories of these individuals illustrate the consequences, for many
residents, of Detroit’s changed status from a manufacturing center to a
“rust-belt” city, which bankruptcy has not addressed. For example, state
residents faced subsidiary fees, such as driver responsibility fees and
driver reinstatement fees, imposed by the state to increase revenue, in
addition to penalties for various driving misdemeanors.12 In addition to
those penalties and fees, Detroiters pay extremely high auto insurance
rates.13 One of Kirshner’s protagonists, Miles, is a construction worker
who needs his truck to get to construction jobs and to pick up necessary
materials. Problems with high-cost insurance and his driver’s license and
subsidiary fees result in his losing much of his construction work, while
dealing with these legal issues;14 his resultant loss of income jeopardizes
his home ownership and his financial stability. In addition, although Miles
reviewed tax records before buying his home, the city’s poor record

keeping had not reflected one year’s back taxes, such that he was hit two
years after his purchase with a notice of a tax foreclosure that he was illsituated to pay and ill-informed to fight.15
The individual stories also show how Detroit’s inability to attract and
develop businesses undermines residents’ efforts to work and establish
a sound financial situation for themselves and their families. Another of
Kirshner’s protagonists, Lola, is a young, college-educated single mother
who loses her managerial job in the city after her company moves its
operations elsewhere. Unable to find a job in Detroit, she must endure a
long commute to entry-level work in the suburbs16—until her car is stolen.
Only the presence of grandparents able to drive her to work and her child
to school enable her to remain in her job and in her home in Detroit.17 She
and her young daughter also face the dangers of increased crime when a
drive-by shooting sends several bullets into the home she is renting.18
Detroit’s diminished economic opportunities have a direct consequence on the ability of its residents to maintain a home. A few of the
protagonists own a home they have purchased or inherited from parents,
but often it is in disrepair or in a particularly unsafe and unpopulated area
of the city, where homes have given way to vacant lots and abandoned and
vandalized houses.19 They want to stay in their homes—and often have
no choice because sale at the current value would not allow them to find
housing elsewhere.20
Much like poor members of any community, too many Detroit
residents cannot buy a home, even at depressed prices, because they lack
a down payment and cannot obtain bank financing.21 Thus, they rely on
land contracts to try to acquire ownership of a home, too often unsuccessfully. A land contract requires periodic payments, like a lease; only
when the full price is paid does title transfer. Any breach, however, results
in eviction (without the need for court process), loss of whatever money
has been paid to the seller, and loss of improvements that the purchaser
has made in the property. Reggie, another protagonist of the book, invests
much effort and money into his home, only to find himself losing all—
even after having paid off the land contract—because the seller failed to
pay property taxes.22 When he lacks the money to put a new furnace in
a new house, again purchased under a land contract, he and his partner,
life-long Detroit residents, consider leaving the city.23

how individuals’ narratives can communicate what legal theory and stats can’t 5
Transplants who came to Detroit for the opportunities it offers
see slower progress than they hoped for, even though they are better
situated to weather financial downturns than long-term poorer residents.
Kirshner’s protagonists include a West Coast property developer and
another entrepreneur, from New Jersey, looking to settle and establish his
own business. The plans of both are affected by the difficulty of obtaining
financing to rehabilitate derelict properties and the red tape often involved
in obtaining necessary permits and approvals.24
In her epilogue, Kirshner summarizes her conclusions:
Bankruptcy . . . does not address the circumstances that overwhelm a
city’s budget. In the wake of bankruptcy cities have sought to maintain
their newly balanced budgets by welcoming speculative property
investment and enforcing fines and fees for civil infractions, avenues for
raising revenues that have inflicted further harm on cities like Detroit
and [its] residents. . . . Reduced spending has further limited public
services and further reduced the capacity of those communities to
contribute to their cities’ reinventions.25

The noted 1989 book As We Forgive Our Debtors presented results of
an empirical study of consumer bankruptcies. Similar to Broke, it profiled
several individuals in the study who had filed for bankruptcy, before
turning to the statistical data and conclusions of the study. The individual
profiles illustrated in detail that many debtors were driven into bankruptcy by circumstances out of their control. 26 In Broke, it is by focusing
on individuals and relating their experiences over a year-long period in
a “broke” and broken city that Kirshner complements her more abstract
findings. And we as readers experience the results of Detroit’s bankruptcy
through the day-by-day events in the lives of these residents.
Broke does not offer solutions to the problems it highlights. It does,
however, memorably inform the reader of the problems municipal
residents can face even after their city’s emergence from bankruptcy. The
decision to tell the story of seven individual Detroiters of varied backgrounds makes this book a compelling read for general readers as well as
those with more specific interests.